“Week Zero” action was a nice appetizer, but it took a full slate of gridiron action to satisfy America’s craving for college football. While the games from two weekends ago provided insights into a small handful of programs, college football observers will exit Labor Day Weekend with hard data on every team in the sport. Any analyst worth his salt knows not to put too much stock in a season opener, as impressions formed about players, teams, and conferences after only one game often prove foolish only a few weeks later (anyone else remember the Kenny Hill Heisman campaign?). Still, the first full week of the college football season provided several interesting insights about what might be in store for the sport in 2021.
Iowa May Be the Class of the West
It’s important not to over-hype the significance of a single victory, but Iowa’s statement win over #17 Indiana created plenty of reason for optimism about the Hawkeyes’ chances of capturing the Big Ten West. Iowa’s defense absolutely smothered an Indiana offense that was one of the nation’s most electric under Michael Penix Jr. last season, and Tyler Goodson’s electric 56-yard touchdown run on the Hawkeyes’ opening drive put the division on notice about what the Hawkeye offense can accomplish when it finds its rhythm. While the Hawkeyes showed a need for improvement in several areas (the passing game was wildly inconsistent, the receivers were absent for much of the game, the offensive line failed to open many holes outside Goodson’s touchdown run, Iowa’s running backs struggled with ball security, etc.), the positives easily outweighed any potential negatives during Saturday’s game.
Iowa’s early season victory also sets them up for success in a West division that appears wide open. Wisconsin looked offensively inept in its 16-10 loss to Penn State and showed the same vulnerability to being beaten in the deep passing game that the Hawkeyes exploited in last year’s contest in Kinnick. The 0-1 Badgers are now stuck playing catchup against the division-leading Hawkeyes, and a road victory in this year’s Heartland Trophy game could give the Hawkeyes a decisive lead over their rivals.
Can any other teams challenge the Hawkeyes and Badgers for the West title? Minnesota looked feisty in their 45-31 loss to Ohio State, but it’s unclear whether they can sustain that level of play should star running back Mohamed Ibrahim miss much time with the injury he suffered against the Buckeyes (his prognosis has not been made public, but it certainly didn’t look good). Nebraska is already 0-1 in Big Ten play after its Week Zero loss to Illinois, and the fighting Illini hardly look like world beaters after their 37-30 loss to UTSA. Northwestern has given the Hawkeyes fits in years past, but the Wildcat rush defense was absolutely gashed by Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III on Friday night (264 rushing years and 4 TDs on 23 carries), an ominous sign for a team hoping to contend in the run heavy Big Ten. Purdue pulled a nice win against Oregon State, but I’ll believe they are a real contender when I see it.
The Hawkeyes don’t have to be an elite team to win the Big Ten West, just better than their competition. Based on the results of Week One, they appear to have a chance to achieve both goals.
The ACC Looks Like an Also-Ran
Week One was a tough beat for the Atlantic Coast Conference. Clemson, the team that has long been the conference’s standard bearer, failed to find the endzone once in a 10-3 loss to #5 Georgia, an ominous sign for a program expecting to reload despite the loss of Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne. #10 North Carolina, a trendy pick to sneak into the College Football Playoff this year, played like a team that spent the offseason reading its own press clippings in a dispiriting 17-10 loss to Virginia Tech. The #14 Miami Hurricanes ran into a buzzsaw against Bama (more on that later), and Georgia Tech and Duke both found themselves victims of upsets at the hands of Group of Five teams. Notre Dame, a team that played in the ACC Championship Game last season, spoiled McKenzie Milton’s storybook comeback story by defeating current ACC program Florida State in a primetime Sunday night game.
The ACC’s playoff hopes are far from dashed; Clemson will be favored to run the table from here on out, and a team like Virginia Tech could emerge as a nice surprise for the league if it can build off its big upset over the Tarheels. But with Miami and FSU still struggling to live up to their reputations and UNC looking less than ready for primetime, the ACC may have to wait until next year to try and shed its image as a conference of Clemson and a series of also-rans.
Alabama Continues to Reload, Not Rebuild
The defending national champions had every excuse in the book to take a step or two back on offense this season, as Alabama returned only three starters from its title team and was tasked with replacing five first round draft picks on that side of the ball from last spring’s NFL Draft. However, the Tide’s offense rolled over #14 Miami in a decisive 44-13 win which saw new Alabama quarterback Bryce Young (27-38, 344 yards, 4 touchdowns) emerge as a potential Heisman candidate. The Crimson Tide defense was already set to be excellent with eight starters returning and pre-season All-Americans Christian Harris and Will Anderson Jr. set to star at linebacker. With the Tide flexing an offense that appears equally dangerous, any hopes of the champs taking a step back this year have officially been dashed.
Upsets (and Near Upsets) Are Alive and Well
Week One has historically blessed college football fans with several shocking upsets and close calls which call into question the merit of the preseason rankings everyone has been breathlessly talking about for the last several months. The 2021 season proved no exception. #20 Washington took an L against an FBS foe in Montana, #16 LSU was outfought on the road by Chip Kelly’s much-improved UCLA squad, #11 Oregon struggled to put away Fresno State, and the leading contenders for the Big 12 title both had to stave off late-game upset bids Tulane and UNI. Fans may not know for several weeks whether these early season struggles were a flash in the pan or signs of serious issues for the ranked teams in question, but the Week One drama served as a stark reminder of why teams can never take a week off in college football.